The point of view determines the perspective of a work of art. One’s point of view, or preconceived bias, can determine how one sees the world and the decisions they make about the information that comes to them. If we think the world is a scary place, resources are few and won’t be enough for everyone, then, we’ll operate from fear and hoarding. If we believe God’s promises are faithful and God will indeed provide for our needs, then we’ll live in trust and hope, even as we order our lives to want less and enjoy simpler pleasures.
I always find it strange how the people in the Bible who have the greatest riches also have the most difficulty following Jesus. Matthew in 16:24-26 speaks to this topic in the section on “The Cross and Self-Denial:”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Of course, even in the 1st century AD, people wanted to have material possessions, a good income, and wealth stored up for the future. When Jesus said, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me,” (Matthew 10:38), he invited his followers to enter a despicable journey.
The Via Dolorosa isn’t named the Way of Grief for nothing. People walked it, bearing a heavy cross beam, on the way to an undignified death, a punishment reserved for criminals.
Yet Jesus transformed this ancient punishment into a means of redemption. He took a symbol of death and made it into a hope for new life. Because of this , the author of Hebrews 12:2 could write, “Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Now we can live the Easter promise written in Ephesians 2:12-18:
“Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
So we who live on this side of the resurrection have a joy to celebrate every day. For us the cross is a sign of victory over sin and death, and the evidence of new life and love God has for God’s world and God’s peoples. As we read in Colossians 1:19-20—
“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
I covered up an old painting I didn’t care about, one of those “unsold inventory pieces,” which inhabit every artist’s storage areas. In the old days, artists would burn their least good works in the winter to stay warm. While we might want to see these works, artists burned them for a reason. They made better fires than art. We artists know art and we know what we like: excellence. If a work doesn’t meet our standards, we can destroy it and move on. Texans have been burning their furniture in the recent winter snowstorm, when their statewide power grid failed. They can always get new tables and chairs, but no one wants to lose fingers or toes.
I used to think my art was a precious thing, as if it were alive. Now I’m more discerning, for a work needs to hold together and still speak to me for a long time for it to be a “quality piece.” Since I’m still pushing the boundaries of an idea, sometimes my work falls short of my goals. Yet if I ever get to the point at which I’m just repeating techniques and forms, I won’t be enjoying myself. I’ll move on to something else, I’ll guarantee you for sure! I was born on a Thursday, and like all such children, I have far to go. I will most likely never stop searching for a better way to express my creative journey or my experiences in this world.
I’ve often wondered about the artists who find one style and work it out infinitely, as compared to those who develop and change over the years. I love the landscape, and have given priority to God’s creation in my own creative endeavors. I feel closest to God in nature and identity with God’s creative energies when I’m making my art. Making art becomes a spiritual experience for me, since it brings me into union with God. I’ve often wondered if the artists who refine only one style ever end up losing their sense of creative joy. While a gallery might find it easier to sell our products if they look like our previous work, artists have to decide if they paint for public approval and sales or for continuous, creative purposes.
This decision is easier for those who have other means of financial support, but for the most part this has been the lot of artists over the years. A few well heeled families may support their creative endeavors, but many others are the starving artists of legend. Most of us end up in the latter category, since we don’t work full time at either our art or our day job. We sacrifice for our muse.
So what does the spiritual life have to do with the life of an artist? Most people think artists spend their lives wantonly drinking in cafes until late at night. These are “artist pretenders,” since actual artists are called to the solitude of their workplaces and the silence of the moving spirit in the pushing and pulling of the media in which they work. If they command their materials, they produce one level of work, but if they surrender to the movement of the spirit, they enter into a dialogue with the work which comes to birth through their hands. In a sense, we cannot “make art,” but we “allow art to become a reality in our presence.”
For those who insist on “tackling their work” or “achieving mastery over a medium,” this attitude of surrendering before the canvas or artwork is difficult to understand. As Jason Nesmith, the captain of the fictional Galaxy Quest spaceship said, “Never give-up, never surrender.” This is such a trope of television writing, the movie makers had to poke fun at it. What’s sad is we confuse our spiritual life with the movies. Sometimes the best course is to surrender. When we realize we’re at the end of our ropes, we don’t tie a knot and hold on. We let go and let God. We quit trying to fix it and control it. We offer compassion to the broken, rest to the tired, refreshment to the hungry, and cheer to the downhearted.
So it is with a painting. It starts with an idea, in this case, I wanted to recycle old material into a new purpose. I also wanted to revisit the aerial view of the lake area where I live, but with snow. I cut and sewed one afternoon until I had enough shapes to glue on my square canvas. You can see the tapestry elements as well as the old embroidery, which I think dates from the 1970’s.Then I set it aside to dry overnight.
The next day, I used my acrylic paints to put the first layers on the canvas. I ended up with more warm colors than I intended, but the under layers were also warm reds and golds. I was losing energy and couldn’t feel the painting speaking to me any longer. This is “artist talk” for losing sensitivity to the changing field of colors on the surface. It’s similar to not being able to recognize the look of boredom on a conversation partner’s face while you go on and on with your tale. In the studio, you lose the work and elsewhere, you lose someone’s attention. When my blood sugar drops, I have to be careful, for I lose my receptiveness to the subtle movements of color and form. If I can no longer hear the work speaking to me,I know I need to stop and come back later.
The next day, I crunched about in the snow for about fifteen minutes, but under the fluff is ice, so I didn’t stay out long. My cozy condo is a better choice. I repainted most of the warm colors with cool blues and pinks, and highlighted the leaf shapes in the “forested area.” We have two large condominium projects near the lakeside and a large highway near the right side of the image. The rest of our landscape is snow covered trees. Once those odd warm areas calmed down, then I could hear again the brighter notes of red and gold against the violets and grays. The hard edges where the fabric joins together follows along the roadways for the most part.
After I completed this work, I hung it on the wall and compared it to one I’d done prior to this which has all the boathouses around our lakeshore area. I decided to repaint the water with the colors of the clouds of the sky. Now I’m happier with the painting because the same families of colors float over both the land and the water areas. It’s more unified.
The good news is while I may not perfect my vision during my lifetime, for I’ll always see more I can do and my hand will surely fail to capture what my imagination can conceive, I’ll always have the assurance of God’s love:
“So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.” ~~ 1 John 4:16-19
In 1938, Jung had the opportunity, in the monastery of Bhutia Busty, near Darjeeling, of talking with a Lamaic rimpoche, Lingdam Gomchen by name, about the khilkor or mandala. He told the famous psychologist , “the true mandala is always an inner image, which is gradually built up through (active) imagination, at such times when psychic equilibrium is disturbed or when a thought cannot be found and must be sought for, because it is not contained in holy doctrine.” (Psychology and Alchemy, Princeton University Press, 1993, paragraph 123.)
Today, in 2021, over eighty years later, a lot of folks must have their psychic equilibriums out of kilter. They look for certainty in an uncertain world. They seek a savior in a frail human being. They make war to bring about their peace. Whatever angers and fears stir their soul, they act on them, to the detriment of the common good. They are like unbridled, runaway horses, stampeding to a cliff edge without awareness of the consequences of the fall.
The mandala is a graphical representation of the center or the Self. It is unique to each person and would be different from day to day. Jung believed the circle invited conflicting parts of our nature to appear and allowed for the unification of opposites in order to represent the sum of who we are. He found this sense of wholeness was reflected in the lives of his patients, as he was able to trace the progression of an individual’s psychological recovery by correlating it with the coherence of the mandalas they drew. Jung believed making the mandalas over time would help a person gain insight into their Totality or their Wholeness, or “True Self,” as we say today. Totality or Wholeness is the psychic stage in which the union of the unconscious with the consciousness has been achieved. It is the final aim of Jung’s psychotherapy.
The Self was a term coined by Jung and reflected the Hindu Upanishads and its depiction of the higher personality, or atman. It’s considered to be the central archetype of the collective unconscious and serves as the organizing principle of the individual personality. The most familiar way the Self can make its presence known in Jungian work is through dream imagery, but this isn’t the only way. Another possibility, and one which had a particular fascination for Jung is the mandala.
For Jung, the individual consciousness is only the flower and fruit of a season that grows out of the perennial rhizome under the earth, and it finds itself better attuned to the truth when it takes the existence of the rhizome into account, for the root system is the mother of all.” This imagery begins to unfold in the mandala imagery. We can imagine a half circle below the earth, where the seed is planted just below the ground, and another half circle above the ground, where the flower will blossom, and then recall the Christian symbolism in the parable of the fertile soil in Luke 8:1-15, which states at the end of this section, “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God.”
In art class, we worked for several weeks at the beginning of the year on our personal mandalas. Since each of us have unique personalities and come from different experiences, we each create a different design. After all, as the Psalmist says to God in 139:14, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.” Gail designed her mandala in the form of a Passion Flower, a wild vine of various colors, with a circular crown in the center. This form suits her background and service in the national parks system. She has an affinity for nature.
Jung knew he needed to maintain a balance between his inner and outer worlds by whatever means, whether it was by painstaking anamnesis (the remembering of things from a supposed past existence), creative activity, and yoga activities or by any other means. He knew his family and patients depended on him, so even though he was in personal crisis, with an unconscious that could have “driven him out of his wits,” he maintained through his obligations of the here and now. Jung was also aware of the possibility of being whirled around by “the winds of the sprit”, since he had observed his colleague, Nietzsche, who “lost ground under his feet because he possessed nothing more than his inner thoughts.” Jung described Nietzsche as being possessed by it, rather than him possessing it, and so succumbed to exaggeration and unreality. To Jung this was horrible state, for he aimed for this life and this world.
Of the things that kept his balance, creative activity, which would manifest in his active fantasies and paintings, allowed Jung to become certain he had to delve into these primordial experiences himself, in order to be able to help his patients. If he had gone through it, he may be able to bring the light of understanding to the existential darkness that his patients experience. He could be a spiritual guide, so to speak. This is why he spent time creating the mandalas from his own experience.
Mike’s mandala was created from his inner imagination. His legal work is with persons who are either in trouble with the legal system or need the legal system to bring justice to their cause. Sometimes this is an all day marathon in the courthouse. Keeping all these people, their situations, and the details of the law organized might require a lot of psychic energy. Mike went with a free form design, a choice that might have been a very relaxing and refreshing change from his daily life.
Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle, but it’s a very special kind of circle. As a magic circle, it encompasses the circumference (perimeter) and the center, but not just ordinary space. The mandala has become a word that is synonymous with sacred space. The very presence of mandalas in the world remind the viewer of the sacred in the universe and in oneself. In some of India’s earliest and most important pre-Buddhist philosophical texts, the mandala already signifies a sacred enclosure and is at times understood to mean a place created for the performance of a particular ritual or practice, or for the use of a great teacher or mystic.
Structurally, the mandala is a combination of a circle and a squared form, usually a variation on a cross. Designs that integrate the circle and a four pointed theme, or one in which the circle is squared represent a mandalic space, or a geometric symbol of life. The four points can symbolize time and space, the equinoxes and solstices, or the four seasonal turning points in the year. In terms of space, it is the four directions. The circle with no beginning and no end is a symbol for the eternal whole which contains time and space. Jung stated that the mandala is the archetype of wholeness, relating it to the Self. He thought a mandala revealed “the center of personality, a kind of central point within the psyche, to which everything is related, by which everything is arranged, and which is itself a source of energy.” Others have stated, a mandala ‘‘expresses the totality of the psyche in all its aspects, including the relationship between (a person) and the whole of nature.”
Therefore, the mandala is one of the image archetypes that often emerges spontaneously when people are in the healing process, either in artwork, or in dreams. Creating mandalas has been found to help the physical healing process as well when they are used in conjunction with meditation. In dreams, mandalas show up in many ways in imagery that shares its geometry or meaning, such as a flower, a square in a village or town, or a fountain. Jung encountered several common symbols when he or his patients drew and interpreted mandalas. These included circular or egg-shaped formations, flowers or wheels, circles within a square or squares within circles. He frequently saw the number four or its multiples in mandalas, which was often represented by squares, crosses or suns or stars with four or eight rays.
Mandala work is very useful in therapy. Art therapists generally simply draw a circle, or have the client draw a circle, and use that as the start of the mandala. This creates an inner and an outer space. If we remember the principle of balance and repetition when we begin to add the shapes to our mandala, we’ll discover its power to unify and center our own energies. In spiritual traditions throughout the world, mandalas focus and reflect the spiritual content of the psyche for both the creator and the viewer. Jung believed that creating mandalas offered a “safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness,”providing a sacred space into which we can invite the Self. He also noticed that creating mandalas had a calming, focusing effect on his patients’ psychological states.
We also see examples of mandala in all the ancient cultures, even in Christianity in designs with animal images representing apostles (and the zodiac), such as the small Chapel of St. Zeno, off the right aisle of the Basilica of Santa Prassede, which was built as a mausoleum for Paschal’s mother Theodora. It’s the only chapel in Rome entirely lined with mosaics. It is an extraordinary sight, as this chapel has the only 9th century Byzantine mosaics in Rome.
For Christians, the Self is a a complicated and mostly negative notion. We usually use the notion in a negative sense, as in “selfish, thinking of our personal needs, rather than the good of the community.” As Philippians 2:3-4 reminds us, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” This doesn’t wipe out our individual needs, however, for we’re also called to “Love our neighbor as our self.” How can we love our neighbors if we can’t honor and love our Self?
This is why we Christian believers can find benefits from introspection and spiritual guidance with the help of a trained person. We shouldn’t take this journey alone, for we need someone with experience who can help us to “test the spirits,” as it were. Above all we should remember the words from Colossians 3:9-11—
“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”
Our search for the True Self is a quest to be renewed in the image of God and conformed to the nature of Christ. As Paul wrote to the Philippians (3:12-14)
“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
A mandala is easy to draw. All you need is a circle and a straight edge, if you’re into perfection. You can do the work freehand if you like. The mandala doesn’t force you into any forms. You make the mandala from your own gut. It will change from day to day and week to week. This too is part of the mandala experience. You can cut it out of paper, use crayons, pencils, ink, or even make it on your computer. If you want to doodle the design on the side of a page, consider it a sketch from your inner spirit, responding to the Holy Spirit, who is calling out to you.
David Miller, Ph.D.: MANDALA SYMBOLISM IN PSYCHOTHERAPY: THE POTENTIAL UTILITY OF THE LOWENFELD MOSAIC TECHNIQUE FOR ENHANCING THE INDIVIDUATION PROCESS, The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2005, Vol. 37, No. 2 http://www.atpweb.org/jtparchive/trps-37-02-164.pdf
The word labyrinth comes from the Greek labyrinthos and describes any maze-like structure with a single path through it. It’s different from an actual maze, which may have multiple paths intricately linked. Etymologically the word is linked to the Minoan labrys or ‘double axe’, which is the symbol of the Minoan mother goddess of Crete. The actual word is Lydian in origin and most likely came to Crete from Anatolia (Asia Minor) through trade. Labyrinths and labyrinthine symbols have been dated to the Neolithic Age in regions as diverse as modern-day Turkey, Ireland, Greece, and India among others.
Labyrinths or mazes may have served to help the ones who walked them to find their spiritual path by purposefully removing them from their common understanding of linear time and direction between two points. As one traveled through the labyrinth, one would become increasingly lost in reference to the world outside and, in doing so, might unexpectedly discover one’s true path in life.
On New Year’s Day, I was reading my Twitter feed and came across this image of a seaside labyrinth. The comment was, “My #oneword for 2021 is downwind. After walking the labyrinth today with turns both against & with strong wind, I realized how limitless 2021 can be with the help of those who push me forward and not the wind pushing against me. This year, I’ll ride the momentum downwind.”
The theme of the labyrinth leading to one’s destiny is intricately linked to the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The Minotaur lived at the heart of the labyrinth on the island of Crete, whose king required the people of Athens to send a tribute of fourteen youths annually. Once they entered the Minotaur ‘s labyrinth, they never returned. Theseus defeats the beast and saves his people, but loses his father to suicide because he fails to remember to change the color of his sails on his return trip as a sign of his victory. There’s even more dysfunctional family relationships, but that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say, the ancient gods were wont to interfere with the lives of arrogant humans who failed to defer to the gods and instead acted as if they were masters of their own destiny.
Greek tragedy deals with the sweeping themes of love, loss, pride, the abuse of power and the fraught relationships between humanity and the gods. Typically the main protagonist of a tragedy committed some terrible crime without realizing how foolish and arrogant she or he had been. After slowly realizing the error, the world crumbles around the hero. The tragic hero must be essentially admirable and good. The fall of a scoundrel or villain evokes applause rather than pity. Audiences cheer when the bad guy goes down. We feel compassion for someone we admire when that character is in a difficult situation. The nobler and more admirable the person is, the greater our anxiety or grief at his or her downfall.
This idea survives to this day in the proverb, “The bigger they come, the harder they fall.” In the 5th C BCE, in the founding work of history known as the Histories of Herodotus, we find the statement: “It is the gods’ custom to bring low all things of surpassing greatness.” An earlier expression, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” is found in the Proverbs (16:18). These date from 700 BCE to the fourth century BCE (1:1-9:18).
In a true tragedy, the hero’s demise must come as a result of some personal error or decision. The tragic or fatal error, or fatal flaw of the protagonist that eventually leads to the final catastrophe is known as hamartia, or missing the mark. It’s a metaphor from archery, and literally refers to a shot that misses the bullseye. There’s no such thing as an innocent victim in a tragedy, nor can a genuinely tragic downfall ever be purely a matter of blind accident or bad luck. The tragic hero must always bear at least some responsibility for his or her own doom. In Greek tragedy, the gods may interfere, but they don’t determine our destiny. Likewise, human events and actors may put detours across our path, but though the gods may intervene on our behalf, we can still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a true Greek tragedy.
The labyrinth is a symbol for change, for it’s the place of transformation. In the myth, Theseus must enter a maze no one knows how to navigate, slay a flesh eating monster, and return to the world above. Theseus accomplishes this, but still retains his youthful flaws until he is changed by his father’s death and he’s forced to grow up and assume adult responsibility. His experience in the labyrinth offered him an opportunity to change and grow but, like many people, Theseus resisted until change was forced upon him.
The medieval labyrinth is a unicursal labyrinth, with a single, circuitous but clearly delineated path. It’s an image encompassing both shared and individual experience, for we don’t walk the path alone, but we share it with fellow travelers. The unicursal labyrinth is distinguished from a multicursal labyrinth (or maze) by having only a single (though winding) path to its center. While a maze may have little or no symmetry and may not even have a center, a medieval labyrinth usually has both. The great medieval labyrinth on the floor of France’s Chartres Cathedral is one of the most famous unicursal labyrinths.
Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychologist, saw the similarity between medieval, Christ-centered mandalas in manuscripts and rose windows, the mandalas of his patients, and the mandalas he created. Jung believed his own mandalas “helped him maintain his psychic equilibrium” and believed “everything points toward the center,”so that he found “stability” and “inner peace” even during the war era.
Medieval labyrinths, and all their variations, including the classical design of which the medieval style is an outgrowth, now appear across the United States in settings ranging from churches and parks to hospitals and museums; they may be painted, tiled, paved, woven into a carpet, constructed of canvas, or cut into a lawn. They’re usually designed to be walked on. Over the last quarter century, the medieval labyrinth has entered public consciousness as a “blueprint for transformation” rather than “an oddity,” as it was at one time. I can remember at least one of my fellow clergy asking if “this wasn’t so kind of new age hooey I was getting into.” Moreover, labyrinths aren’t limited to meditative and ritual use; they also appear in secular and recreational settings and are often noteworthy for their ornamental or artistic value.
While each one of us walks the same path, no one has the same experience on the labyrinth. We’re all on the same journey, but we’re traveling on a different part of the path. We entered at a different time, or we came to the labyrinthine journey at a different period of our spiritual journey. Some of us will move slowly, while others will hustle along the way. If we came with troubles and worries, we may have been looking for THE ANSWER. The labyrinth isn’t a one armed bandit. We don’t put our money in, pull the handle, and get a payout. The walking is instead an opportunity for reflection, a time to give our selves to the service of God, and set aside our pride.
I’ve walked on the labyrinth on different occasions and had different experiences, since I’ve been “residing in different inns along my spiritual journey” during the years as I make my rounds about the sun while I live on this planet earth. I’ve been to the holy land twice, and been to Greece and Turkey to walk in the footsteps of Paul to see the churches he planted across the Mediterranean. I spent a summer in Italy during art school, while living in a small town and taking field trips to see the historic sites nearby. I took an interterm during graduate school to visit London and visit all the museums I could devour in that short time, along with some excursions to the seaside. Still, I’ve yet to see Stonehenge, and I’ve not seen Paris.
The question is, do we walk the labyrinth as a tourist going to a destination, expecting to stamp our passports, bring back photos, and buy souvenirs, or do we go expecting to meet Christ along the way? On the tour groups, folks sort themselves fairly soon into subgroups. The ones who want to go quickly to the site, give it a once over, take a few photos, and hit the souvenir shops before they have a coffee or a drink, will find each other and share their daily haul as they relax and wait for the stragglers to roll in. The stragglers come in two groups: the ones who took their time, and the ones who took the wrong turn and got lost. Thankfully, I didn’t get lost as I often do here at home! My notorious ability to take the wrong turn and my poor map reading skills are legend. The virtue of group travel is we leave no one behind.
While each person enters the labyrinth alone, others may also be on the path also. When we meet another, we perform a silent dance of giving way, first one to another, then the other to the one. Two can’t be in the same lane at the same time, but we can “dosie do” to let one another pass on by. This is life in community, where we share the spaces and the journey. When we walk the path of the Labyrinth, we enter a space/time/continuum. This is where up/down, left/right, and forward/backward all exist in one time dimension. Time passes differently inside the Labyrinth, for the twisting path appears to take us first directly toward the center, but just as we approach it, we are forced to follow the path directly away from the center instead. Then we wander around the outer edges of the labyrinth until suddenly, we arrive at the center. If we think we’ll never reach the promised land, we’ll find ourselves suddenly cast upon its shores as a Jonah spewed from the belly of a big fish. What seems like three days of darkness in a labyrinth may only be thirty minutes. Clock time gives way to God time on the journey.
Thus we enter into the timeless paths of all the pilgrims walking before us, those who never made their way to the holy land, but found the holy in the land in which they lived. The labyrinth has a way of uniting all the time of the past, the future, and the now into one dimension. In this way, when we walk the labyrinth, we enter into the kairos time of God, as opposed to the chronos time of humanity. No longer are “on the clock,” but we walk in the appointed and opportune time for us to experience the holy.
If we’re surprised, and emotionally disconcerted as we walk these twisting paths, it’s because we discovered we had no control over how soon we could get to our destination. We can stay in the center and be humbled by this awareness, but often we act like tourists instead. We get our passports stamped after an appropriate rest, and head back home. As heroes who’ve been to the center, we journey back to the outer world as changed people, ready to bring new truths and understanding back to the world. If we are like the Greek heroes of old, however, our tragic flaw will be living for ourselves only and forgetting to do good to all.
The energies of the labyrinth aren’t self-contained to the paths or to those who walk it. It is a holy space, so like the energies of space time, in which space and time are relative, observations depend on the viewer’s speed. If we rush through the labyrinth, we don’t have the same opportunity to meet Christ on the road to Damascus, as Paul did, and have an opportunity to change our lives. We need to drag our feet a bit, as the grieving disciples did on the road to Emmaus, so we might have the privilege of recognizing Christ in the central act of blessing the bread when they invited him to stay with them at the end of the journey.
The hurried life isn’t for the contemplative person, so even those whose lives are given over to getting many things done can benefit from a quiet time now and then. Otherwise, we can become the heroic Theseus who depends upon his own power, rather than giving credit to the powers of the gods, for all his great deeds. This is why his arrogance and pride is his undoing, even though he had a transformative experience in the labyrinth. Not until much later did he process this experience and grow from it.
When I began my painting, I started out with the actual forms, in homage to the many walks I’d participated in over the years. Soon I thought of burying the image, and uncovering parts of it, as if it were an archeological dig in process, but I only buried the outer edges. Then the idea of energies of the innumerable pilgrim walks percolated up into my consciousness and I began to paint the intersecting colored arcs. While I lost the paths, I was painting my emotional experience of the walking. I’ve been on quite a journey this past year, even though I’ve gone nowhere, due to the covid pandemic. Confined to home, I’ve longed to journey elsewhere, but the labyrinth is a journey anyone can take safely without fear of a monster who devours human tributes. I’m looking forward to the new year and new works, and perhaps some actual journeys. God bless everyone. Thanks for reading this.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” might best describe my and Gail’s latest adventure at the Oaklawn art class. Pinterest Fail is another synonym for our latest escapade. If my daddy were to describe the result, he’d say, “Close, but no cigar.” That’s a quintessential American expression, which is little used elsewhere in the English-speaking world. The first recorded use of “close, but no cigar” in print was in Sayre and Twist’s publishing of the script of the 1935 film version of Annie Oakley: “Close, Colonel, but no cigar!” I’m very fond of these ancient phrases, which are daily passing from the common parlance, even as new words are invented. These were our first attempts at this craft, so our learning curve resembled the same disastrous, steep ascent of the daily Covid infection chart.
The 1977 movie title “Close Encounters “ was derived from a classification of close encounters with aliens as set forth by the American UFO researcher J. Allen Hynek. Close Encounters of the First Kind refer to the sighting of a UFO. Physical evidence of a UFO are classed as Close Encounters of the Second Kind. Actual contact with an alien is a Close Encounter of the Third Kind. Therefore, our air dried cornstarch, salt, and baking soda clay objects, which should have looked neat, crisp, and clean, instead came out more like visitors from another planet, whose embodied boundaries were disintegrating in an inhospitable atmosphere.
Yes, I blame the recipes, which said “warm water,” rather than naming an actual temperature. Just as science projects and recipes for bread need accurate measurements and temperatures for success, so does cornstarch clay. Gail mentioned her clay began to heat up under her hands as she worked it. Mine never did, but I had to add rock salt to my mix because I ran out of table salt. Don’t do this! The salt crystals won’t melt and I had chunks in my finished pieces. The proportions of the recipe I used are equal amounts of each ingredient, so if you have just a limited amount of one, measure it and give the others to the main bowl in the same amount.
Once the dough looks like mashed potatoes, don’t eat it. Instead, turn it out on parchment or waxed paper and knead it a bit. Then use a rolling pin to get the dough about ¼ inch thick. Use cookie cutters to get your shapes. Put them on a clean, flat surface, such as the back of a sheet pan. Take a plastic straw to put a hole in the upper part of the cutout. This works best if the shape is a touch dry, since the damp dough will close up. The hole is for the string hanger. The rolling pin might need flouring with corn starch if it sticks to the clay.
I also took some leaves and twigs from the bushes on the church property to use as embossing. I put these down on the cutouts, gave them a rolling pin once over or twice, maybe three, and made sure not to over flatten the shape. You could also use a decorative rolling pin as the last roll to make an all over pattern if you like that idea. A patterned doily or a scrap of lace would make a good pattern also.
When class was over, we cleaned our mess up with hot water and paper towels. I let the water run in the sink to make sure any small remains were washed far down the pipes. All the big scraps should be thrown in the trash. When I got home, I wasn’t in the mood to let these air dry for days and days. They already looked like they belonged on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, so I put them in the oven at 200F.
Water boils at 212F, so at 200F these shapes would be slowly drying out. I baked them on a cookie sheet for 30 minutes on each side. I did notice a bit of toasting in places, but I planned on painting these, so I don’t think it matters. I did lose the points off a few stars, but in this year of the Pandemic, perhaps some of us may be able to identify with the brokenness and vulnerability of these imperfect objects. We may want everything and everyone to be perfectly normal, but standard operating procedure isn’t on the menu for this year’s Thanksgiving or Christmas. We’re all suffering in one way or another, just like these ornaments.
I didn’t preheat the oven, for the clay objects don’t need to be shocked into a different temperature. We don’t preheat a kiln before we fire clay pottery, but raise the whole to the same temperature at one time. Of course, if you’re making a recipe with flour, yeast, or eggs, and you need your concoction to rise, you do need a preheated oven. Otherwise, just put the food into a cold oven and let your nose tell you when it’s done. Preheating is a waste of energy if you don’t need it for the recipe. These clay pieces will be hot when you remove them from the oven. Let them cool until you can pick them up without dropping them like a hot potato (a metaphor from the 1800’s).
I did take a sharp paring knife to the edges to smooth them out. Yes, I didn’t like the raggedy look. You can’t do this cleanup roughly or with big whacks. This is the fine tuning of your shape. I used to help a porcelain doll maker back in my home town. I would sand the final shape of the doll baby’s faces, hands, and feet for her to paint. She appreciated my work because I would keep the anatomical details correct and give the little faces individual personalities. Portraits in porcelain aren’t that easy, but I wouldn’t rush to finish. If we’re always on to the next task, we might miss the opportunity to meet God in the work we’re doing in the moment.
Right now in this current crisis, most of us are limiting our time out and about. If we go to the grocery store, we find our goods and get out. I do the self check out or scan and go wherever I am so I don’t have to stand in lines. I do miss the interaction and chats I used to have with folks. I decided recently even if I were masked, I would begin to speak to others. So far on each outing, at least one person has shared their feelings of grief or loss, which are a result of this pandemic. Because we are forced to limit our contacts, we’ve also lost our opportunities to share our daily joys and our challenges. If we don’t use our words, we’ll lose them. We need time to share our lives and be a community for one another, since we’re all in this together. These are God moments in which we can be a blessing to others, as well as to receive a blessing from them.
This loss of conversation will be even grimmer if our loved ones pass on during this pandemic, for their memories will cease to be available to the younger generation, and their stories will no longer be shared. As these old ones age, and their frailties become like the imperfect points on my Charlie Brown stars, we realize we won’t have them much longer. Even more so, we’ve come to realize this pandemic spares neither the young nor the full of life, as more and more of our friends are struck by this disease. Any one of us could become a Charlie Brown Christmas star at any moment. I have family members who’ve had it, friends who’ve died from it, and my heart goes out to all who suffer with it, especially those who have lost their incomes because of it.
Those who now deal with the persisting side effects of this disease don’t get near the encouragement or assistance they need in their recovery, since the rest of us are too worn down from self care and from caring for those who’re newly ill. Even the health care workers, first responders, and essential workers who have to keep the rest of us safe, well fed, and secure are struggling under the long term stressors of this pandemic. We have a responsibility to care for them so they can keep going under duress. All these folks need a sign from us that they aren’t forgotten.
Unique stars have always been a herald or sign of unusual events to follow. The gospel of Matthew (2:1-2) records the visit of the magi, astrologers from the east, to King Herod:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
These foreigners recognized the sea change about to happen in the world, for soon earthly kingdoms would recede in importance, and the powerful would lose their sway. If they could see this sign in the sky, we have to wonder why no one in Israel was considering what the star’s arrival signified. Perhaps the learned priests knew, but didn’t want to tell King Herod the bad news:
Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD of hosts is his name: If this fixed order were ever to cease from my presence, says the LORD, then also the offspring of Israel would cease to be a nation before me forever. (Jeremiah 31:35-36)
Of course, today most of us no longer believe the stars and planets affect our daily lives, nor are we “born under a bad sign,” as the blues players sing. Once we clean up the Thanksgiving meal, many of us will turn our thoughts to the holiday season. I’ll remove the last of the autumnal gourds and bring out a few winter seasonal objects every week until New Year’s. As the seasons change, we note the changes in our world. If the days are growing shorter and darker, we ourselves can still be lights in the world, as Paul wrote to the Philippians (2:14-15):
Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked. and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.
Even if we’re Charlie Brown stars, our lights will be a beacon of hope for all the world to see.
One of the best genres of painting is still life: it doesn’t move, it never gets tired, and it never fusses about sitting in one place for a longtime. It’s only drawback is it might rot if you take too long to do your art work. Most of us won’t have this problem, since we’ll either take a photo of the piece or go on to paint something else before that happens.
Still life painting as an independent genre or specialty first flourished in the Netherlands during the early 1600s, even though parts of earlier paintings paid detailed attention to flowers or fruit within the whole. The rise of still life painting in the Northern and Spanish Netherlands, mainly in the large city trade centers, reflected the increasing urbanization of Dutch and Flemish society, which brought with it an emphasis on the home and personal possessions, commerce, trade, learning—all the aspects and diversions of everyday life. These still lifes featured imported flowers and fruits plus expensive objects such as Chinese porcelain, Venetian glassware, and silver-gilt cups and trays, all of which were usually rendered in a glistening light and with a velvety atmosphere.
A noted Flemish master of the 17th century, Jan Davidsz de Heem, enjoyed combining multiple flowers from different seasons along with ears of corn, a spider, a ladybird, ants, and butterflies in a glass vase on a slate ledge with red currents, a violet, a snail, and a caterpillar. Photorealistic paintings like this were in vogue then, but as the years rolled on, modern artists began to explore other directions. Cezanne retains the luxurious drapery of earlier still life paintings, but simplifies the forms of everyday objects. He’s the father of the cubist painters, represented by Picasso’s bottle still life.
Another artist shows us how to handle the reflection of the background in a glass vessel. Matisse freely paints the colors and shapes of the plants, the window, and the bright goldfish plus all the highlights from the light sources. He even lets some of the white of the unpainted canvas show throughout his work to add to the feeling of airiness.
A current painting from Pinterest is a quieter and more sedate rendering of the goldfish theme. The overall drawing is good, but it lacks energy. There’s no vibrancy in the light coming through the window and the shadows on the goldfish are too dark. Muting the values of the colors toward grey and brown will decrease the “pop” of a painting every time.
We also looked at a painting of a clear bottle with lemons in the background. Objects behind a glass will often be displaced by the surface, just as water also shifts the position of anything underwater. We’ve tried bottles and jars before, but this is the first time we’ve focused on them entirely. As a collector of ancient and odd things, these are old beer and soda bottles I’ve found over the years. They aren’t THAT old, with the oldest being about 1905. They’re all mould blown and have distinctive air bubbles and seam lines.
One is from the bottling company of my hometown, the Star Bottling Company, which first produced the Uncle Joe and Aunt Ida soft drinks, before becoming part of the Coca Cola bottling family in 1904. Before the Coca Cola Company created a line of flavored drinks, most of the bottlers created their own brands, with orange, root beer, strawberry, grape and fruit-flavored drinks. Because they weren’t allowed to put them in bottles with the “Coca-Cola” script, the bottlers developed their own “flavor bottles.”
The writing on many of these bottles indicated they were property of the local Coca Cola bottling company. Collectors can find an enormous variety in flavor bottles, and most are very inexpensive to collect. Mine are of the nondescript, ordinary variety, but I have fond memories of the experience of finding them. Plus the excitement of a field trip to the bottling plant, which both got us out of school for a morning and introduced us to the wonders of industry.
The earliest known man made glass date back to around 3500 BCE, with finds in Egypt and Eastern Mesopotamia. Discovery of glassblowing around 1st century BCE was a major breakthrough in glass making. Archaeological findings in Egypt and Eastern Mesopotamia indicate the first manufactured glass dates back to 3000 BCE. The oldest fragments of glass vases found in Mesopotamia date back to the 16th century BCE and represent evidence of the origins of the hollow glass industry. Beside Mesopotamia, hollow glass production was also evolving in the same time in Egypt, in Mycenae (Greece), China and North Tyrol (now part of Austria). The first glassmaking manual from the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (669-626 BCE) dates back to around 650 BCE.
Because glassmaking was slow and costly, it was luxury item and few people could afford it. Around the end of the 1st century BCE, Syrian craftsmen discovered the new technique of “glass blowing.” This revolutionary event made glass production easier, faster and cheaper, so that glass, for the first time, became available to ordinary citizens. The tools and techniques of glass blowing have changed very little over the centuries.
The Romans traded glass across the vast RomanEmpire and beyond. They were the first to use glass for architectural purposes when clear glass was discovered in Alexandria around 100 CE. Venice was the center of the glassmaking craft.
The art of glass making flourished during the Roman Empire and spread across Western Europe and the Mediterranean. Glass was one of the most important items of trade beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. The Romans were the first ones who began to use glass for architectural purposes, when clear glass was discovered in Alexandria around AD 100.
Other examples in the image above of the Roman expertise in glass blowing include a pale green bottle, with the four-sided mould-blown body with rounded shoulder and tapering cylindrical neck, the wide strap handle attached to the shoulder and curved under the lip, 5¾ in. (14.5 cm.) high; a pale green jug, the squat spherical body with diagonal ribs, a pinched handle attached to the flaring neck with trailed ring, 4¾ in. (12 cm.) high; and a pale yellow unguentarium, 4 5/8 in. (11.8 cm.) high. These were from an auction lot at Christie’s.
A flourishing glass industry was developed in Europe at the end of the 13th century when the glass industry was established in Venice by the time of the Crusades (1096-1270 CE). Despite the efforts of the Venetian artisans who dominated the glass industry to keep the technology secret, it soon spread around Europe. Eventually all the great gothic cathedrals of Europe would have stained glass curtains or large windows of colored light illuminating their interiors.
Because stained glass is translucent, we see both the color and the light. When we paint with acrylic colors, the light reflects back from the pigments in the binding medium. In watercolor, the white paper adds brightness since the colors are transparent. This means we have to “fool the eye” and use highlights plus color values near to the background colors to give the illusion of clarity.
Gail is getting good at analyzing the shapes and setting them down on a small canvas during our short class period. This still life had both the extra solid apple and the very clear bottles in contrast. It was more challenging than it sounds. How do you balance the heavy with the light, the solid with the transparent, and the cool blues with the warm reds? Adding a strong background color helps tie the two together.
Another way to bring everything together is to ignore the apple all together, as Mike did. This is called artistic license. He included the red in a cloth crossed by another golden fabric. He uses multiple viewpoints, for the base of the bottles are on one plane and the tops are flipped forward. I don’t know if he changed position or just sat up straighter when doing the bases. I also gave him one of my brushes to use in class, since he’s been using the same one forever. He wants to paint a straight line, but is using a round brush. He needs to take a lesson from Tim, the Tool man Taylor, and “use the right tool for the right job.” Of course we all know that means the one with “more power!”
“Here, use this flat edge artist’s brush. I think you’ll like it.” “Wow, it really paints a smooth edge.”
“Yep, I been suggesting you get a better brush, but you keep using the old one. I finally decided you needed to experience what a real brush feels like in your hand.”
“If I go in the store, do I need a special license to buy a real artist’s brush?”
“They’ll take your money. That’s the only license you need.”
He laughed. I’m glad he has a sense of humor. We’ve been doing this class for about two years now. It takes us a while to learn from each other. We have to learn how to be transparent and open to one another, much as a clear glass bottle is open to light shining through it. The greatest challenge for any of us as adults is accepting any instruction or critique at all. In seminary, I always opened my tests and papers after I repeated my mantra, “I am not my grade.” If I got a good score, I didn’t let it go to my head, but worked even harder on the next effort. If I didn’t score well, I took that grade as an opportunity to define my arenas of insufficient knowledge. I could work on that for the next time.
As we read in the scriptures, the apostle Paul writes: All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. ~~ 2 Timothy 3:16-17
If we weren’t willing to be transformed, why would we read our Bibles or attend to the teachings of God’s holy word? If we let the good word go in one ear and out the other, and it never makes an impact on our hearts, minds, or lives, we’re dead in our faith. We’re called to have a living faith, one full of hope, and actively bring that same hope to our hurting world.
Johnny Nash, who recently passed away, had the number one song on Billboard’s Hot 100 song list in 1972, called “I can see clearly now.”
I can see clearly now the rain is gone I can see all obstacles in my way Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
I think I can make it now the pain is gone All of the bad feelings have disappeared Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies Look straight ahead, there’s nothing but blue skies I can see clearly now the rain is gone I can see all obstacles in my way Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
Oh what a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
I hope you have a bright, bright, sunshiny day, Cornelia
When the seasons change, I have days when I drag. My get up and go has done got up and went. Perhaps my increasing age has something to do with this feeling, or the pandemic’s lack of social interaction has dulled my senses. Some days I think I’m moving through molasses, and then the next I wake up on a brighter side of the bed.
Occasionally, I wonder where my mind is. I recently had to get the attendant at the Kroger gas station to help me pump the gas. When I used my loyalty card, the pump didn’t reduce my price. I forgot this pump had a screen prompt, which I’d ignored. Once I was retrained, I got the good discount and filled my car up. I really need to get out more. I’m not driving as much as I once did because of this pandemic. I used to say, “My brain has gone to Pluto,” but now it seems to have gone to the pandemic instead. I could always count on the old grey matter making the circuit back to earth, eve if it took 248 years, but until this Pandemic passes, I may be slightly silly. Some of you will say, “No one can tell the difference,” but I know better.
One of the benefits of this enforced solitude, which we’ve all endured, is we’ve had the opportunity to consider everything tried and true, and decide if we need to keep it or do something different instead. Some of us have redecorated our homes, take up a new hobby or occupation, or even become teachers or caregivers. Many of us cleaned out our closets and clutter because looking at it daily was too much. We’ve done what we had to do. Others of us have held on to the old traditions, as if they were security blankets. We won’t change them until our world feels safe again.
To make progress in art or any creative endeavor, sometimes we have to “burn the security blanket” before we can go forward. This is hard to do, for we get comfortable with whatever small success we first make. Basketball great Kobe Bryant would practice by himself for hours before his teammates showed up and would make four hundred shots every single practice. Notice that’s MAKE, not TAKE. Work ethic is a hallmark of greatness. Kobe was never satisfied with only the good, but sought to be his best.
Building a Community of Encouragement
Yet we are also people who need encouragement, and this means we need community. In community we can build each other up by “catching the good each one does.” We can reward and praise this, even though we usually find ourselves pointing out the spot a person missed, or how they could do it better next time. There’s a difference between criticism and critiquing someone’s work. Criticism usually only has negative statements, but a good critique begins with at least three positive comments before it notes what needs improvement and how to accomplish that task.
Artists and creative persons learn over the years to separate their identities from their work. Who we are as God’s beloved children never changes, no matter how badly our work gets panned. Most of us artists think we’re misunderstood anyway, so we go back to our studios and work some more. Words won’t kill us, and plenty of artists were never commercially successful. Most artists or creative people work at their craft because they have an inner need to express their experiences or ideas about the world in which they live.
Finding Our Own Voice
We work to discover who we are and what our voice would say to the world. In most art classes, the teacher makes a model and the students attempt to copy it as faithfully as possible. This process may use the elements of art, the media of art, and the end product may look like art, but the students are imitating someone else’s creative process. Thinking through the problems of shape, shadow, color, composition, and texture are part of the creative process. I’m very proud of our group, for each person is finding an individual voice. You would be able to identify their work, even if it were unsigned.
Season of Harvest
Hoshana Raba (Heb. הוֹשַׁעְנָא רַבָּא; “the great hoshana”) is a name for the seventh and last day of the Sukkot festival, or the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles. Sukkot has a dual significance: historical and agricultural. The holiday commemorates the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. Sukkot is also a harvest festival, and is sometimes referred to as Chag Ha-Asif, the Festival of Ingathering.
In the medieval poem “Om ani homah” attributed to Eleazar Kalir, the Israel nation declares ‘I am a wall’. The poem is recited during Hoshana Raba (Great Supplication) which begins this evening.
Ingathering or Harvest Festivals are part of the seasonal experiences of our lives. Last week I brought a bunch of gourds and pumpkins in for class. I gave each person the opportunity to choose the ones that spoke to them to use for their still life. We had quite the variety of solutions.
Gail’s pumpkins were bold and bright, filling the canvas.
Mike’s were exuberant and about to come alive with energy.
Margaret was new in class, and made a highly textured still life, complete with cast shadows.
Mine were socially distant, a commentary on this pandemic life.
I brought the pumpkins and gourds home to grace my altar. It changes with the seasons, so come advent, it takes a more exuberant and celebratory vibe. For autumn, it’s full of natural bounty. When Nehemiah was celebrating the festival of booths and purifying the temple, this was the prayer of the people:
“O Lord, Lord God, Creator of all things, you are awe-inspiring and strong and just and merciful, you alone are king and are kind, you alone are bountiful, you alone are just and almighty and eternal. You rescue Israel from every evil; you chose the ancestors and consecrated them. Accept this sacrifice on behalf of all your people Israel and preserve your portion and make it holy. Gather together our scattered people, set free those who are slaves among the Gentiles, look on those who are rejected and despised, and let the Gentiles know that you are our God. Punish those who oppress and are insolent with pride. Plant your people in your holy place, as Moses promised.” (2 Maccabees 1:24-29)
All good things come from God, and we owe our lives and our living to the Holy God. Help us to care for the least among us, especially those who hunger and thirst at this time of harvest and during this season of change.
Who had hurricanes named with the Greek alphabet on their 2020 Bingo card? In a season when catastrophic west coast fires cause Pumpkin Spice skies, we shouldn’t be surprised. Heat lightning striking drought parched national forests and a gender reveal party blunder set off the blazes. Over the years, all of the top 10 costliest wild land fires in the country have been in California. The costliest of all was Camp Fire in 2018, which set insurers back over $8.5 billion, according to numbers tallied by the Insurance Information Institute. But the Camp Fire was just one fire. Reinsurer Munich Re estimates the costs for all the wildfires that year to be over $20 billion. So far this year’s fires should bring in a similar calculation.
Hurricane Sally knocked out power to 320,000 people along the Gulf Coast and caused initial damages of over $29 million just to roads and public buildings. Homes and personal property damages have yet to be counted. Folks are waiting for flood waters to recede for that estimate to accrue. Over thirty inches of rain fell at the coast, with lesser amounts inland. A major section of a three mile long bridge collapsed, with no date for repair.
None of the dollar costs account for the loss of precious lives, the impact on businesses, or the quality of live in these hard hit areas. Is New Orleans the same post Katrina? Are Miami and Puerto Rico thriving yet? Most of Houston has recovered from the $127 billion loss due to the 2017 hurricane and flooding of the lowlands in the city, and now a large portion of its residents believe climate change is a clear and present threat to future flooding.
The climatological peak of the Atlantic hurricane season is around the second weak of September, which means that August is normally when we start to see a major ramp up of tropical cyclone activity. The year 2020 being, well, a crazy pants year, 2020 is writing a new script. Records are dropping like flies this season as we’ve come to realize those 21 names aren’t going to be enough. Already Tropical Storm Beta, the second letter in the Greek alphabet, is threatening the Bahamas
According to the National Hurricane Center website, “In the event that more than twenty-one named tropical cyclones occur in the Atlantic basin in a season, additional storms will take names from the Greek alphabet.” In 2005, six storms were named with the Greek letter alphabet. During the Great Depression in 1933, hurricane season was also great, with twenty-seven named storms, which beat the former record of 21 storms, according to NASA. Zeta formed December 30, 1933, after the official end to the season.
The number and cost of disasters are increasing over time due to several causes. These include increased exposure or values at risk of possible loss, and vulnerability or how much damage does the intensity of wind speed or flood depth at a location cause. We also consider how climate change is increasing the frequency of some types of weather extremes that lead to billion-dollar disasters. There were four billion-dollar weather disasters in the United States in August 2020, according to scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: the derecho storm that hit the Midwest, Hurricanes Isaias and Laura, and California’s wildfires.
A wonderful 1934 oil painting, “The Line Storm,” by John Steuart Curry, 1897-1946, possibly inspired by the approach of a derecho-producing storm in Curry’s home state of Kansas, shows the dramatic approach of the shelf cloud driven by the straight line winds.
These storms and their costs weren’t a record, but warming temperatures do account for more frequent and intense weather events. This is important because a report commissioned by President Trump’s Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued dire warnings about climate change’s impact on financial markets, as the costs of wildfires, storms, droughts, and floods spread through insurance and mortgage markets, pension funds and other financial institutions. In calling for climate-driven policy changes, the report’s authors likened the financial risk of global warming to the threat posed by the coronavirus today and by mortgage-backed securities that precipitated the financial crash in 2008. The wildfires in California this year alone have burned 5 million acres of forested lands. To grasp the size, compare Arkansas’s forests, which cover 19 million acres or 56 percent of the State and contain 11.9 billion trees.
Sometimes we’re like Egyptians who live along De-Nile. If we can ignore the problem today, someone else can take care of it tomorrow. Unfortunately, this isn’t the order of God’s world. In the beginning, “God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.” (Genesis 1:16)
Moreover, “…God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)
To rule and to have dominion are both terms related to sovereignty, just as Christ is Lord. We don’t talk much about kings in a Democratic society, but we humans have authority over nature. Unfortunately, we don’t always use our power well. We waste resources, fill oceans with plastic, or buy single use items destined for landfills that won’t decompose. As we approach autumn stewardship season, we might want to reconsider our attitudes and relationships towards nature.
In the central Great Plains, the 100th meridian roughly marks the western boundary of the normal reach of moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, and the approximate boundary between the semi-arid climate to the west and the humid continental (north of about 37°N) and humid subtropical (south of about 37°N) climates to the east. The type of agriculture west of the meridian typically relies heavily on irrigation. Historically the meridian has often been taken as a rough boundary between the eastern and western United States. This area around the 100th meridian, was settled after the American Civil War, beginning in the 1870s .
In the United States the meridian 100° west of Greenwich forms the eastern border of the Texas panhandle with Oklahoma, which traces its origin to the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1819 which settled the border between New Spain and the United States between the Red River and Arkansas River. Dodge City, Kansas lies exactly at the intersection of the Arkansas River and the 100th meridian. The latitude of Hot Springs, AR, USA is 34.496212, and the longitude is -93.057220. This means we’re east of the 100th meridian and in the “humid, subtropical south” section of the USA. Of course, spending a single summer here in the Spa City would convince any skeptic of the truth of this. We should have no “weather deniers,” even if we have “climate change deniers.”
Yet we here in Arkansas are far removed from the coastlines of our nation. We have our tornadoes and occasional floods, but we think of these as facts of life. If these disasters don’t impact us, or someone we know, too often we can shrug them off as just another sad occasion. We might collect flood buckets or give a few dollars to disaster relief, but the emotional impact of the life and death circumstances of other human beings doesn’t often register in our households. I’ve often wondered about this, but perhaps we grew numb during the Vietnam war to the nightly body counts and the images of war gore on television. About 62,000 service people died in the Vietnam War, a number which pales in comparison to the number of deaths during this pandemic, which now number 204,202 souls.
Since art carries with it the notion it should be “beautiful,” subjects about social commentary or politics often run against this grain. “Executions on the Third of May,” by Francisco Goya is an example. On 3 May 1808, Marshal-Prince Joachim Murat wrote to the Infante Don Antonio Pascual that he had executed about one hundred Spaniards, ‘Peasants . . . our common enemy’. Later police reports recorded that the French executed mainly artisans, laborers, one or two policemen and beggars during the street protests in Madrid.
The Death of Marat, by Jacques Louis David, is another social commentary painting. Marat was a popular radical French politician, political theorist and journalist, who advocated for basic human rights for the poor during the French Revolution. Marie Anne Charlotte Corday, a royalist from Caen, purchased a knife in a nearby store, walked into his home, and stabbed him dead while he was soaking in his bathtub. David, his friend, painted this memorial to the man who was working up to the last moment of his life for the common good of all the people.
In our faith life, we first learn to pray for our families, then for our friends. With spiritual growth, we can pray for strangers who are like us, and finally we learn to pray for our enemies. When we grow ever closer to God’s presence, we discover we also grow closer to our neighbors. The lawyer who tested Jesus with the question, “But who is my neighbor?” went on to discover the neighbor is the one who shows mercy to the stranger. If we want to be true neighbors, we must be the first to show mercy to the strangers in our midst, and not wait for them to “deserve it” or “give mercy to us first.”
How can we make emotional connections so we can do this? In art, as in other endeavors, we can stick with analysis and order. This is our problem solving brain. “What’s the quickest route from point A to B?” We look for one and done. That’s how we operate in most of our lives. Creative solutions, however, seek multiple options: “How many uses can I find for a brick? How many ways can I use a stick?” When we paint a still life, often we stick with the problem solving skills of our brains, and under use our emotional skills. Sometimes this has to do with our timidity regarding our technical skills, so eventually we’ll gain more confidence in our handling of the media. The expression will come through once we are comfortable with the media. It’s a matter of practice and time.
Putting emotions into our art work is also difficult because we’ve been trained since childhood to repress our feelings. Many of us can’t own our feelings. Perhaps we grew up in families with substance abuse and saw our parents out of control. If the other parent told us, “You don’t really see this,” or “We’re just fine, so go to your room,” we might be confused about how we actually feel. Learning to sort the truth from the lie is hard, but we can learn it at any age. Others of us have been taught to “get along with others by smiling a lot.” Another way of saying this is “don’t speak about anything that will upset anyone.” It’s also known as Peace at Any Price, or Prilosec for Everyone.
Marsden Hartley painted Ghosts of the Forest in 1938, in the woods of his home state of Maine. He saw the giant logs, felled by the forest industry, as if they were bones leeched white on a desert. He had returned from New York to find his own individual voice in the landscape he knew best, in the place in which he was born. (Hartley also wrote Adventures in the Arts, which you can read as a free ebook through the Gutenberg ebook project).
In art class, we talked about how 2020 has been a snowball rolling down from an avalanche high up in the mountains. It’s been one catastrophe after another. I know some young folks who’ve quit watching the news altogether, since they can’t handle one more piece of fuel thrown onto the conflagration of the chaos of their lives. Older people, who’ve survived other chaotic times, tend to breathe in, exhale, and say to themselves, “Be still, and know that I am God.” We know once this pandemic passes, some other excitement will take its place. We’ve learned to focus our energy on things that matter to us, rather than on the chaos which the world throws at us. Practicing spiritual disciplines helps us to meet the world calmly.
In art, we call this principle imposing order on disorder. Every work of art, no matter how abstract, has an internal order. Sometimes the order is a limited color scheme, such as a cool or warm palette. The balance may be evenly distributed on both sides, as opposed to a large central shape. Each of us has our own personality, of course, so we show our creative streaks differently.
Gail’s energetic painting of the flames eating the trees came from her heart. With her long experience in the park service, nature is a close companion. The fires in California have made a big impact on her, for she can imagine such a fire in the Ozark’s of Arkansas. This is empathy, which is a characteristic of a good neighbor.
Mike’s painting recognizes the need for city planning. Out west, people want to live next to nature, just as we do, but having homes near drought stricken forests is a prescription for calamity and combustion. The beginning of his design reminds me of his last year’s Day of the Dead altarpiece, which was quite the elaborate project. When we learn from other people’s mistakes, folks call us intelligent. If we repeat the same mistakes others have made before us, folks don’t have kind words for us. That’s when we wish they would practice smiling more, and speaking less.
I often do traditional landscapes, with a foreground, middle ground, and background. I’ve always wanted to do some paintings based on maps, or aerial views, so I looked up Oaklawn UMC and the racetrack. I brought some scraps of clothing, canvas, glue, and scissors to add some dimension to my work. While it doesn’t have my usual palette colors of yellows and reds, maybe the grays are like the smoke filled skies overhead. This California smoke has traveled on the jet stream as far as Northern Europe, or about 5,000 miles.
The whole purpose of art is to stretch our minds and push our boundaries. The more we encounter the world around us, the more likely we come close to the edge. That’s scary for some folks, but it’s just paint, canvas, or other materials. We aren’t jumping off a tall building. That would be an irreversible harm to life. If our end product looks sad at the end of the class, we can work it over later on. We get second chances, and another opportunity to improve. We learn from our mistakes. As my grandmother, a portrait painter, used to say, “Fail again, but fail better each time.”
We can also redeem our world, for we still have time. This is how we can live out our image of God, co-creating and recreating a better world.
“When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” ~~ Psalms 104:30
Listening to God is one of the hardest tasks most of us will ever undertake. How can we hear God’s voice, which has been described as the sound of sheer silence, when we live in the midst of the furious cacophony of our frantic world? If we do take time to be still, our own thoughts jump around inside our skull as if they were so many monkeys in a tree. We also find obstacles to our being still enough to listen to this silence, for there’s people who need us, work to be done, cattle to rustle, and snakes to kill. Even in the midst of a pandemic, life goes on.
The pandemic has also added extra levels of pain to our lives, for we’ve not only lost the support of our communal practices and our social experiences, but many of us have lost a friend or loved one to the coronavirus. We grieve for the life we used to live before social distancing and we grieve for the lives we’ve lost to the disease itself. Then there’s doom scrolling, the unfortunate habit too many of us find ourselves drawn to when we can’t draw ourselves away from the latest post on social media or update on breaking news about the latest indignity or harm this virus has done to humanity. All this wearies us and as we grow more tired, we lose our sensitivity to the small and quiet things.
It’s alright to admit we’re struggling, for then we can truly live out the verse,
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
As I’ve continued my painting in my own studio, I recognize I have ebbs and flows of energies. This is normal in every creative person’s life and work. We work through the rough times so if inspiration happens to fall upon us from on high, we’ll be there to receive it. If this doesn’t happen, the canvas can get painted over, cut up and rewoven, or eventually destroyed altogether. It’s a painting, an object from which to learn and to listen as we gain skill in our craft.
When I was younger, however, I treated my works as if they were precious and alive, like a child. Perhaps I hadn’t made enough of them, and I also hadn’t had my own flesh and blood child. Once I had a child, I learned I couldn’t do what I thought was best for her, but I needed to listen to her and figure out what she needed. Since babies cry and don’t talk right away, this took some doing. But there were signs, of course: if I’d just fed her, she might need burping or a diaper change. If she woke up from a nap, nursing and rocking was a good choice. Later as she got older, I had more to learn, but it was a while before she said words.
Our paintings never speak out loud, yet we need to listen to what they tell us, just as our subject matter never communicates a word to us, but we hear it calling to us, “Paint me!” In class this week, Tatiana brought flowers from her gardens for us to paint. She focused on the tiger Lilly and got a good rendering of it. She had some new paints, so she laid the color down thick. It would have to dry before she could straighten up any details.
Gail was finishing up the carrot flowers. She had roughed in the shapes with lights and darks last week. This week, getting the lacy details of the flower heads needed a plan. We looked at Seurat, the French pointillist painter, who set dots one beside another to make the shapes and to mix the colors. This was a new technique that she modified for her own.
Glen was painting a violet flower, and had a tender rendering in pink. It was quite well drawn, with good highlighting. I suggested he put a light blue wash on it. He must have enjoyed the blue, for he painted out his beautiful flower. I’ve done this myself. I keep going until lose it, and then I regret it. When an artist is learning a new technique, he or she will often over do it until the painting feels dead. This happens to me when my blood sugar dips and not enough energy gets to my brain. I can even feel it coming on and I have to stop myself before I begin to lose my fresh hand.
This is why an artist always has to be listening to the flower, if that’s the subject matter of the day, and also to the artist’s own self, as well as the painting. I think of this as a lesser trinity. Just as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all listen and commune together, so the artist, the subject, and the art work need to listen and communicate together. If we would quiet ourselves so we could hear the voice of the flower speaking to us or our art work telling us what it needed, we might be more likely to hear the still, small voice of the God, who is Three in One.
Lately I’ve had an extra burst of energy around the house, but this always happens as the light begins to change and the sap rises in the trees. I see the first feathers of blooming green on the tips of trees and realize the grays of winter are no more. The ornamental pears lining our drive are bursting into white and the joy of the pink Japanese magnolias have my spirits and energies both exulting. I was in Kroger looking for the daffodils to bring to art class, but they weren’t in the store yet. I live in a condo, so those jaunty jonquils on our property aren’t mine to cut, since they’re considered community property.
When I arrived at church Friday, it was a fine spring day, the sort most folks would want to be outside digging up a garden. I certainly would, but I have a few pots inside for herbs and call that my “condo garden” instead. Mike and Gail asked, “What? No flowers? We hoped there’d be flowers!”
Yeah, me too. I’m ready for flowers. Just as spring flowers remind us of new life, they also remind us of the fragility of life. In the bulb, there is the promise of the life yet to come, even if it’s hidden underground all winter, just as there’s the promise of our new life to come after our death and burial. When we have a worldwide pandemic of a novel Coronavirus, which has no vaccine as yet to protect us, we depend on common sense behaviors and our faith in times of trial.
For our still life, I appropriated a tea kettle and a frying pan from the church kitchen. Since I returned it, I didn’t use the five finger discount, but merely borrowed it for a bit. As we looked at the still life, I talked about the objects as simplified forms, which we’ve done time and time again. The basic forms may get boring, but they’re the foundational exercises for artists, just as practicing the scales are for musicians.
I pointed out how the tea kettle is more like a big sphere, which has had its bottom sliced off so it can sit on the table. If we can see the ball inside it, then we can capture its fullness. The spout is a cylinder, with a triangular form attached to it. The pan is another sphere, but this one has had its top and bottom cut off. It’s like a globe with only the equatorial latitudes remaining because the top and bottom 45% have been removed. Also, we can see the inside, for it’s been scooped out.
Last week I’d shown Gail the trick of using the brush handle to measure the still life and get similar proportions on her canvas. I showed this to Mike today. This is part of the “secret, gnostic, knowledge, known only to a few, and passed on by word of mouth,” which artists teach to students when they they’re ready to receive it. I usually leave the group alone for awhile, and then get up and make a quick check of their work. Gail and Mike are second year students, so they work more independently. We all paint some more, but on the second check is where we’re more likely to get into trouble.
This second checkpoint is about ninety minutes into a two hour session. Our internal clocks tell us to hurry up and finish, so we begin to paint without thinking or looking at our subject anymore. We’re just doing, but not paying attention. If we were slicing onions with a sharp knife for a restaurant, we might lose a fingertip here. Thankfully we’re only painting shapes, which can get covered over with more paint. Art is much more forgiving than chopping onions. Keeping our focus is a skill just as much as learning perspective, color theory, or value. Learning how to step away and check our work is also important.
What of the subject matter, though? What inspires us to paint? We may be asking the question, “What is beautiful?” A corollary to this is “Does the subject need to be beautiful to be art?” The ancient proverb, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” has been around in one form or another since the 3rd century BCE in Greece. I remember standing in front of J.M.W. Turner’s “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus” (1829) in the Tate Gallery in London when I spent a winter term there during my grad school days.
I was making a small drawing of the scene, which I remembered well from my days in Latin class, and was paying attention to the details of the one eyed cyclops and the tiny figure shaking his fist in the boat below, when an older gentleman came close, inspected the art work, stepped back, and then looked hard at the painting once more. A brief moment of silence passed as he continued to study the work before him, then he leaned forward once more and read the painting’s title out loud. “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus—no, I don’t see it. I don’t see it at all.”
I almost dropped my sketchbook in amazement. It was as plain as the nose on this man’s face, but he couldn’t see it. This painting currently isn’t on exhibition, so perhaps many people had the same reaction as the gentleman viewer, and not enough had my joyous response to Turner’s painting. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, an untrained eye won’t recognize esoteric beauty even if it’s labeled “work of beautiful art.” If we don’t have fine arts education in our schools, then children grow up without an appreciation for their creative spirits and their own unique voices. Art is a field of exploration which allows for many types of expression and interpretations of “beauty.”
In our world today, we’ve turned so many activities over to professionals. While I wouldn’t want someone who stayed in a Holiday Inn last night doing brain surgery on me, I’m not ready to let fast food cooks prepare all my meals. This attitude of outsourcing ministry to the professionals is a dated concept, for now the most prevalent understanding is all Christians are called to ministry by virtue of their baptism, and some are set aside for special service to the church and the world through ordination. In art terms, we all are part of the arts and crafts movement, although some of us have special training to elucidate our greater gifts.
Paul explains this in his letter to Timothy:
“In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work.” ~~ 2 Timothy 2:20-21
Lest we get a swelled head, thinking we’re special utensils, or get depressed believing we’re only ordinary utensils, we all need to remember we’re both useful in our Father’s household. In our everyday lives, we need to care for those in our community who exist on the margins of life, many of whom are hourly workers who stitch together several part time jobs to make ends meet, but don’t get health insurance anywhere.
Our elderly are another marginal and vulnerable group, who often have multiple health conditions and declining incomes, fewer social contacts, and less mobility. Once they were the special vessels, made of gold and silver, but now they get treated like ordinary wood and clay, too easily broken in their fragile days. Our elderly carry the dreams and memories of our history together, so they can tell the stories of perseverance when the times get tough.
The wonderful promise is all of us can be “special utensils,” dedicated to God, ready and useful for every good work. We merely have to show up. We don’t have to hire professionals to do all our work, but we can enjoy the experience of our own creative efforts. Learning new skills builds confidence as well as competency, so we get a double benefit. God will give the promised Holy Spirit to the entire priesthood, for we’re are all called to do God’s good works for the sake of the kingdom.